Bullet Journal: Becoming Intentional

I do something called Bullet Journaling. I’ve done it for several years as a way to stay organized. If you look this up and you’ve never heard of it before, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by how complicated it is.

But it only looks that way. Once you do it for a few months, you start to see how simple and beautiful the system is.

The word “journal” is a bit confusing. It’s not a place where I write my feelings or whatever. A bullet journal should be thought of more like a highly efficient planner designed to help you achieve large, unmanageable goals by breaking them into simple tasks.

I couldn’t imagine writing a novel without this method anymore.

What does this have to do with intention?

Intention is one of those concepts that got a bad reputation from New Age gurus of the 90’s. I can almost hear Deepak Chopra saying something like: “Set an intention for the day and it will be manifested.”

That’s not quite what I’m referring to. One of my favorite writers, Anne Dillard, wrote in The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim.

The concept is so obvious that it’s easy to forget. We often think that as long as we have long-term plans and goals, the meaningless tasks of the everyday don’t really get in the way. But, without intention, your days will fill with these tasks and activities, and then, all of a sudden, you’ve spent a whole life that can’t be gotten back doing essentially nothing you consider valuable.

Okay, so we can answer the question now. Intention, to me, is simply taking stock of the way in which you spend your day, so that you end up spending your life the way you intend.

This is why I opened with talking about the Bullet Journal method. The design of that system forces you to rethink what’s important on a day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis.

It has you “migrate” tasks. When you do this, you ask yourself: is this vital? Is this important? Why?

If the answers are: no, no, I don’t know, then you remove it from your life. Don’t overthink it. As soon as you start making excuses, you start filling your life with stuff that doesn’t matter to you. This means you’re committing to living a life that isn’t meaningful to you.

Make sure you’re intentional about how you fill your day.

Let’s take a simple example. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, but you’re too busy. Somehow the day just gets away from you. In your daily log, start tracking an hourly log to find out if you’re doing things that aren’t intentional.

You have some Twitter feeds that focus your news articles. This was meant to save time in the beginning. But now you realize a bad habit has formed where you go down the comments rabbit hole and the trending topics and on and on. The first hour of your day is shot, you’re filled with rage, and you haven’t even read any actual news articles yet.

You relax with some Netflix at night. But you started that one series that everyone loves. You just don’t get it. It adds no value to your life. But you keep going, because you might as well finish it now that you’ve started it.

And there was that time you wanted to know how hard it would be to make French Onion Soup from scratch, so you looked up a Youtube video on it. The sidebar recommended Binging with Babish and Alex French Guy Cooking and French Cooking Academy (all excellent, by the way).

All of a sudden, you’re subscribed to a dozen great cooking channels giving you hours of video every week. You feel compelled to at least watch a few, because, hey, you subscribed. There’s like, some sort of obligation there, right?

Maybe that last one wasn’t you (hint: it was me).

But you get the point.

Little things become habits really fast. Habits expand to fill those gaps in your day. If you were to ever stop and take stock of this, you’d find several hours a day you could have been learning piano. That Netflix series alone commits you to 60 meaningless hours of your life: gone forever. Sixty hours can get you through the beginner stage—easily.

Ask yourself, was that worth it? In twenty years, will you think it was worth it when you still haven’t even sat down at the piano, and now it feels too late? (It’s not too late; this is just another excuse.)

And maybe you’re thinking: but turning my brain off after a stressful day, watching something I don’t care about is exactly what I need to sleep better. Getting frustrated learning the fingering of a B-flat scale is the opposite of relaxing (seriously, that’s a messed up scale compared to literally all the others).

Great! You’ve answered the why. The Netflix series has value to you. You’re doing it with intention. Don’t cross that off your list. Maybe it’s that Twitter hour in the morning you can cut back on. Maybe right now isn’t the time to learn an instrument, and that’s okay, too.

Intention is what matters.

I’m not advocating everyone use this method.

This was actually just an extremely long-winded introduction to say I’m getting intentional about a few things I haven’t questioned for a while.

Every year, I put up a Goodreads tracker on the blog to show my progress on reading 52 books a year. For something like five years, I’ve read 60+ books a year. As a young, immature writer, this was hugely important.

As I learned about prose style, genre conventions, story structure, characterization, dialogue, etc, I was constantly testing it against a huge variety of books. I saw people who followed convention, people who didn’t, if it worked, and why.

In other words, when I started this practice, it was extremely useful. It had value to me. I did it with intention.

Recently, I’ve re-evaluated this practice. I’m getting rid of it. At this point, I find myself stressing about reading books I don’t enjoy just to check off an arbitrary counter. I’m obviously going to still read, but it will be more intentionally chosen and at whatever pace fits that book.

And let’s face it. I’ll probably still get through 40+ books a year. I’m just not going to have the stress associated with it anymore.

I get that I’m being a bit hypocritical or even egotistical with this, because I will continue to recommend other writers do the high volume method. I think most writers greatly undervalue the process of critical reading for the improvement of their writing. Quantity trumps quality until you reach a certain threshold.

Another intentional practice was mentioned in this post. I’m cutting out forced blog posts and only doing ones that I think add true value to the blog: no more stressing about “Examining Pro’s Prose” or “Found Clunkers.” All of my most read and liked posts were one-off things I was inspired to write anyway.

I’ll also use this time to announce next year’s reading series. I’m still getting value from the “Year of…” series, because I’m focusing on and learning about a very specific thing when doing it.

Ironically, in honor of intentional reading, I’m going to do the “Year of Required Reading.” I want to revisit some books I was required to read in high school and see what I think of them now. I also want to read some books required of students that I didn’t read to see if these modern additions are good ones.

I think it will be a fun series, though it might cause some comments from concerned parents if I think a required book just doesn’t live up to the hype.

So far I’ve only decided on To Kill a Mockingbird and something by Steinbeck (leaning toward Of Mice and Men but could be convinced to do The Grapes of Wrath with argument).

I’ve gotten intentional about a few other personal things that don’t need to be discussed here. But I thought I’d give a bit more explanation about some of the changes.

For those curious, here’s an overview of the Bullet Journal Method:


Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

If you didn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal, in my understanding, is to motivate someone who has always wanted to write a novel to actually sit down and do it. You have a daily writing goal of 1667 words per day. If you meet this goal, you will have produced a 50,000 word novel in one month.

I successfully did this in 2010, and I decided to do it this year as well (though I decided about 5 days into the month, and I still haven’t made up my 8,000 word deficit). I’ve been trying to meet my Wednesday blog goal in addition, so this is going to be a short and poorly edited post.

I’d like to give an analogy with running a half-marathon (something I did for the first time last month). To be successful at either of these tasks, it is something you have to want to do. If you don’t actually want to put the work in, then nothing I say after this point will matter.

So now we’ve established that you want to write the novel. In this case, NaNoWriMo is an excellent opportunity for you. I’ll give a list of helpful things NaNoWriMo provides.

Impediment to Writing a Novel 1: You have no pressure to sit down and do the work.

Solution: If you sign up on the NaNoWriMo webpage, make a profile, tell people you are doing it, have the website give you word count deadlines, etc, this external pressure gives you incentive to do it.

Now maybe adding stress to your life with extra artificial deadlines, or your family continually asking you how its going, isn’t the healthiest thing in the world. But it is only a month, and then you can choose to never think about it again if you want.

I think of this in the analogy as signing up for the half-marathon. I had started training programs many, many times in my life but always quit well before the day of the race. I think this was because there was no pressure to complete the program once it got tough. I could drop out with no consequences. If you sign up, then your name is out there, you put some money down to do it, people you’ve told get excited for you and would be let down if you dropped out.

Impediment to Writing a Novel 2: Working through slow or difficult writing periods, i.e. staying motivated when you hit the wall.

Solution: NaNoWriMo provides an enthusiastic community. No matter where you live, there are probably lots of people who meet up and do “write-ins.” When you are feeling down, you can post this in a message board, and get tons of helpful tips to stay motivated. When other people post, you can be the one to provide cheery feedback.

I think you can’t underestimate the feeling of doing this in a community. There’s something about being in a group of thousands of people who are doing the same thing at the same time.

This is similar to the half-marathon. You can’t imagine the number of times I thought to myself, “If all of these people can do it, then I definitely can do it. They can’t all be special superhumans.” The race itself is full of nonstop positive feedback. Similarly, you get all sorts of motivational and positive feedback from famous authors in your email throughout the process.

When you find yourself thinking that you can’t keep up this pace of words per day, it is nice to think that most of the people participating are just normal people like you, and if they can do it, so can you. You can even meet many of them and bond over the experience.

Now on to some of the downside of NaNoWriMo (why have I not ended this post yet? I still have over 3,000 words to write today in addition to this…). I guess one could ask what is the point? In some sense, you produce a terrible rough draft of about a third of a typical novel length.

Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose you want to publish your novel. This means that if you work at this furious pace for two more months after NaNoWriMo has ended, then you will have a rough draft. I personally estimate editing something to take about 3 times longer than it took to write.

This means that you can’t really consider NaNoWriMo to be an intense experience, because you have to keep it up for a full year if you want to even start sending it out to places, which might take several more years. There have been famous examples of people doing this, but I think one downside to NaNoWriMo is that it gives people a false sense of how much work producing a novel is.

If you want to go all the way to publication, it is like running six marathons, but only having the excitement and support for the first half-marathon. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you understand what you are getting into when you start, but if it is your first time, it is easy to fall prey to the hype and not realize that at the end of the whole thing, you have basically nothing that you can show people (please don’t make people read your unedited 50,000 words that spewed out of you at this rapid pace (even if they beg you for it!)).

So why do it? I guess you could ask why do anything? It gives you a real sense of accomplishment if you succeed. It is cathartic to produce. It is a community building exercise. It teaches you a lot about yourself. It can be extremely fun to invent the plot twists. It exercises your creative muscles. It gets you away from TV and mindlessly clicking through cat videos on youtube in your spare time. Plus, I plan on publishing mine someday.

I think there is a way to link my progress bar to WordPress. I’ll try to do that so that I can stay accountable to you all as well.